Eminent speakers gather for IYA kick-off
BY DR EMILY BALDWIN
Posted: 21 January, 2009
The International Year of Astronomy officially kicked off with a grand opening in Paris last week. Astronomy Now’s Keith Cooper and Emily Baldwin joined representatives from over 130 countries to mark the first 400 years of modern astronomy.
The Sun begins to set over the UNESCO headquarters after two days of celebrating the official launch of the International Year of Astronomy, but it is just the beginning for 12 months of inspiring and promoting astronomy to the public. Image: Emily Baldwin/Astronomy Now.
The opening address was given by Mr Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), where the conference was held, who summarised the main goals of the IYA as both an opportunity to encourage "citizens of the world", especially young people, to rediscover the Universe in which we live, and also to promote widespread access to the basic sciences and to increase scientific literacy.
“Four hundred years ago when Galileo Galilei directed his telescope to the night sky, astounding discoveries were made which changed man’s perception of the world forever,” he delivered to a packed conference hall of government representatives, Nobel Prize winners, eminent scientists, members of the press, and selected students from all over the world. “Over time it has largely been astronomers and astrophysicists who have enjoyed the knowledge of the Universe, its stars and planets, and their link to and impact on our daily life. The IYA provides us with a fantastic opportunity to expand this knowledge, and enable all people to explore the wonders of the Universe and appreciate the benefits of its study for society.”
Catherine Cesarsky, President of the International Astronomical Union, also placed emphasis on exposing young people to science in order to reverse the apparent decline in science interest among young people today. In a dedicated press conference she said that astronomy could be used as an attractive platform into science in general, and that we [scientists] have a responsibility to the next generation of scientists. “As astronomers we lead a fascinating life, and we should share this with everybody,” she said. “All human beings should understand their place in the Universe and should know we are making huge discoveries.”
To this end, hundreds, if not thousands, of events on global, national and regional levels are planned for the coming 12 months to celebrate astronomy and its contributions to culture and society, while highlighting its importance as a globally uniting endeavour. The Year’s theme of "The Universe, Yours to Discover" aims to place astronomy easily into the hands of the public.
Astronomy inspired art and heritage aims to put astronomy in the hands of the public in an attractive and appealing style. Image: Emily Baldwin/Astronomy Now.
Eleven cornerstone projects provide the pillars of the IYA, and their legacy is hoped to last long beyond 2009. One of these themes is Dark Skies Awareness. “Everyone enjoys the wonders of the Universe,” said Lord Matin Rees, Astronomer Royal. “Dark night skies are the one part of our environment that has been shared by all human beings, therefore it is not just astronomers who should care about observing the night skies.” Dark Skies Awareness aims to raise the level of public knowledge about adverse impacts of excess artificial lighting on local environments and help more people appreciate the ongoing loss of a dark night sky for much of the world’s population.
Many of the other Cornerstone projects were highlighted at the conference, including She is an Astronomer, designed to highlight and tackle the gender bias in astronomy; the Galileoscope Project that will enable school children to experience observation of the Moon and planets using a sophisticated yet affordable telescope; and 100 Hours of Astronomy, which will see round-the-clock, round-the-globe event such as live webcasts from research observatories, public observing events and other activities around the world.
Key speakers included Catherine Cesarsky, President of the International Astronomical Union (far left), Lord Martin Rees, Astronomy Royal (second left) and Robert Wilson, Nobel prize recepient (middle right), who joined UNESCO representatives at the official press conference, recorded here. Image: Emily Baldwin/Astronomy Now.
Over the two days at UNESCO, we were treated to spectacular exhibitions, including models of the Planck and Herschel space telescope missions - two missions that will be launched by ESA in April this year. Planck will study the cosmic background radiation in greater detail than ever, and Herschel is a space based observatory that will be open to astronomers all over the world to bid for time. Other exhibitors demonstrated telescopes and the latest astronomy books, and others displayed works of art and heritage inspired by astronomy. The exhibitions complemented presentations from distinguished speakers including Robert Wilson, who first discovered the fossil radiation left over from the Big Bang, and for which he received the Nobel Prize; the UK’s Jocelyn Bell Burnell who first discovered pulsars; and Hubert Reeves, who spoke on the question of parallel universes. The audience was also treated to a live video conference with astronomers at the European Very Large Telescope in Paranal, Chile, and remote imaging sessions with representatives from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii, and the Salsa Telscope in Sweden.
2009 also marks the 200th anniversary since Charles Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. “Astronomy and Darwin have together given us a wonderful story,” commented Rees. “Starting from some mysterious genesis event nearly 14 billion years ago, atoms formed and then stars and planets and eventually biospheres, to creatures that evolved with the mental capacity to wonder about their origin and ponder the mystery. This wonderful story is part of our culture.”
IYA 2009 aims to portray the importance of science as part of our culture and environment. For more information about IYA 2009, Cornerstone projects, and events in your region, visit www.astronomy2009.org